South Dakota v. Dole Case Brief

Summary of South Dakota v. Dole (1987)

Relevant Facts: The following is a cause of action for declaratory judgment to interpose the U.S. Government from withholding federal road improvement funds to States which allow people under 21 to drink alcohol. SD has an age of 19 as the drinking age. Under 23 USC article 158, U.S. can withhold up to 5% of funds in such a case. Lower federal courts rejected such a claim by SD, that the incentive goes beyond reasonable limits of Congressional spending powers.

Issue: Under constitutional law, may the federal government withhold a portion of federally appointed monies for roads for roads by instituting a tax or incentive to those States who raise their minimum drinking age to 21?

Holding: Yes. Congress is indirectly under its spending power encouraging uniformity in the States' drinking ages, and this is only influence, not regulating.

Court's Rationale/Reasoning: Spending power is related to pursuit of the “general welfare” of the United States. Spending power may be enforce by Congress if it desires to condition the States' receipt of federal funds, but it must be done in an unambiguous way, enabling the States to exercise their choice knowingly, aware of what could happen to the State if it did not comply. Also, spending power is granted if they are unrelated to “the federal interest in particular national projects or programs.” Other constitutional provisions may provide an independent bar to the conditional grant of federal funds.

The first such situation is justified as Congress is using its power in a way that is directly related to one of the main purposes for which highway funds are used, that being highway safety. A Presidential commission even has the numbers to prove that younger kids flock to those states where the drinking age is lower (SD though?). Thus, they justify their actions under this argument.

The other point the Court hits on is the constitutional bar argument, in which SD claims since the Constitution provides no regulation of drinking age, Congress has no right to enforce it. However, the Court rebuts this argument by bringing up the fact Congress is allowed to provide a constitutional bar, provided the enforcement is not directly regulating anything, which in this case is a national drinking age. Here, there is an indirect regulation through incentives and penalties, for which Congress is allowed to do, in requiring a higher drinking age minimum. The Court has held in the past that federal funds may be withheld to state government officials if they didn't cooperate with federal plans, as the government has the power to alot its monies how it sees fit.

The language in the 21st Amendment limits Congress to situations where the States would be committing unconstitutional acts. The threshold, as discussed in Steward machine, is when “pressure turns into compulsion.” A conditional grant for federal road money is not compulsion to do anything illegal.

Rule: Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and has repeatedly employed the power to “further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal monies upon compliance by the recipient with federal directives.” (rule from Butler)

Important Dicta: Court won't decide whether the 21st Amendment would prohibit an attempt by Congress to legislate directly a national minimum drinking age.

Dissenting: (Justice O'Connor) 158 is an attempt to regulate the sale of liquor, which is outside of Congress's power to regulate commerce. She has a narrow holding regarding the Act, which she says is a misapplication of article of the 21st Amendment.

Congressional spending power has a limit: it must regulate only congruent to what it is funding; the withholding of road money in comparison to a national drinking age is not congruous. The facts the majority lays out in determining that younger kids will be deterred from drinking fails to take into account they are but a small portion of highway fatalities each year, and that these younger people are not driving to begin with.

The condition on federal road money is to provide safe highways for interstate travel, not to restrict the people who can travel on them (19-20 year-old drinkers). This is a social imposition which does not fall within the boundaries of Congressional spending power. A Congressional brief says the legislature has the power to spend on the general welfare, but can only legislate for delegated purposes, which is to say Congress can't tell people what to do with their state money beyond telling them what purpose the money is earmarked. Thus highway safety is not related to how the funds Congress has appropriated are expended. This is a regulation on who can drink liquor, which is not justified.

If this were a Commerce Clause argument, it would still fall below accepted reason. Congress does not have the power to regulate State citizens on who can purchase liquor: this is a State power only. This is not an enumerated McCulloch power.

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